Characteristics and Motives of Adolescents Talking with Strangers on the Internet

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Despite widespread concerns about the dangers of adolescents’ online communication withstrangers, we know little about (a) which types of adolescents talk with strangers and (b)what motivates them to do so. Drawing on a survey among 412 Dutch adolescents, we foundthat early adolescents (12–14-year-olds) were most prone to talk with strangers on the inter-net. If adolescents communicated online more frequently, they less often talked withstrangers on the internet. However, if adolescents engaged in long chat sessions, they tendedto talk with strangers on the internet more often. In contrast to earlier research, introversionwas not related to adolescents’ tendency to talk with strangers. The motives of entertainment,meeting new people, and social compensation increased adolescents’ online communicationwith strangers.526INTRODUCTIONADOLESCENTS are the defining users of the inter-net. They not only spend more time onlinethan adults, but they also integrate internet-basedcommunication technologies more strongly intotheir social lives.1,2The specific features of the in-ternet—that is, its anonymity, reduced visual andauditory cues, the insignificance of physical dis-tance and time, and the greater control over one’sself-presentation3,4—facilitate online contact withstrangers. As a result, the predominance of the in-ternet as a social medium among adolescents hasraised fears that they may be trapped into exploita-tive relationships with strangers.5,6This fear maybe justified: a recent U.S. survey has found that 39%of the adolescents interviewed communicated on-line with strangers.7Because adolescents’ online contact withstrangers seems to be an all but marginal phenome-non, two questions arise. First, what characterizesadolescents who look for strangers on the internet?Wolak et al.8have dealt with the characteristics ofyouth who formed romantic relationships withpeople initially met on the internet. Little, however,is known about the characteristics of youth who getin touch with strangers on the internet without nec-essarily forming romantic relationships. A secondquestion that arises is why adolescents seek thecontact of strangers on the internet. Various re-searchers have suggested that investigating peo-ple’s motives for using the internet may offerinnovative and theoretically challenging explana-tions of the consequences of the internet.3,9But stillit is largely unexplored how adolescents’ motivesfor online communication affect whether they talkonline with strangers.Characteristics of adolescents talking with strangers on the internetBy online communication with strangers, wemean the frequency of adolescents’ online commu-nication with people they do not know relative toCYBERPSYCHOLOGY & BEHAVIORVolume 9, Number 5, 2006© Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.Amsterdam School of Communications Research (ASCoR), University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.14337c03.pgs 10/10/06 2:44 PM Page 526the frequency of their online communication withpeople they do know. This conceptualization al-lows us to precisely identify adolescents who ex-clusively or predominantly talk with strangerswhen communicating online. These adolescentsmay differ from those who talk online withstrangers, yet also communicate online withfriends.In terms of characteristics that may influence theextent to which adolescents talk with strangers onthe internet, we focus on adolescents’ gender, age,introversion, and frequency and intensity of inter-net communication. Generally, adolescent girlsvalue interpersonal communication more thanboys do and spend more time than boys with on-line communication.10,11Therefore, girls may alsobe more likely than boys to talk with strangers onthe internet. As for age, we expect early adolescentsto be more inclined than late adolescents to talkwith strangers on the internet. The dramatic devel-opmental transitions that take place in early ado-lescence, along with an occasional feeling ofdisorientation,12make that period a critical time forexperimenting with oneself, for example, by talk-ing with strangers on the internet.As far as introversion is concerned, related re-search on social anxiety has shown that sociallyanxious adolescents communicate online moreoften with strangers.13Because the internet’sanonymity and reduced auditory and visual cuesmay enable introverted people to overcome socialinhibitions more easily than in face-to-face commu-nication,3introverted adolescents may more oftenthan extraverted adolescents talk with strangers onthe internet.Regarding adolescents’ frequency of internetcommunication, previous research has shown thatadolescents who use the internet more frequentlyare more likely to form close online relationships.8Furthermore, research on computer-mediated com-munication has emphasized the importance of theintensity of communication sessions for relation-ship formation.4As a result, we expect that themore frequently and the more intensively adoles-cents communicate online, the more likely theymay be to talk with strangers online.Motives of adolescents talking with strangers on the internetBased on previous interpersonal and media re-search14,15and on recent internet research,10,16–18weidentified five motives for online communicationthat may influence adolescents’ online talk withstrangers: entertainment, social inclusion, main-taining relationships, meeting new people, and so-cial compensation.The entertainment motive refers to adolescents’tendency to have fun, to enjoy themselves, and torelax and is related to more playful web activi-ties.16As a result, adolescents who communicateonline to be entertained may be less selective intheir choice of communication partners and maytalk more frequently online with strangers. Socialinclusion motives reflect adolescents’ need to be-long to a group19and are linked with people’ssearch for social networks.10,17,20Because theanonymity and reduced visual and auditory cuesof online communication may facilitate talkingwith strangers, we expect that adolescents willmore frequently talk with strangers online if theylook for social inclusion on the internet. Themotive to maintain relationships describes adoles-cents’ need to interact, through online communica-tion, with people they already know. We henceexpect that adolescents will less frequently talkwith strangers online if they communicate onlineto maintain existing relationships.In contrast to the motivation to maintain rela-tionships, the motivation to meet new people onthe internet refers to the development of new re-lationships.10,17This conceptual difference fromthe maintaining relationship motive also impliesthat a weak or non-existing motivation to main-tain relationships cannot be equated with a strongmotivation to meet new people. An individualmay not be interested in maintaining existing re-lationships, but may also not be motivated todevelop new relationships. Conversely, an indi-vidual may want to maintain his/her relation-ships and may, at the same time, be motivated tomeet new people.Because the formation of new relationships is acritical developmental task in adolescence,21ado-lescents who are motivated to use the internet tomeet new people may talk more frequently tostrangers than will adolescents who are not moti-vated to use the internet to meet new people. Thesocial compensation motive, finally, describes ado-lescents’ tendency to compensate, in onlinecommunication, for inhibitions encountered inface-to-face communication. People are more likelyto form online relationships if they consider onlinecommunication more suitable than face-to-facecommunication to compensate for problems theyencounter in offline social situations.22As a result,we expect that adolescents will talk online morefrequently with strangers if they are motivated tocompensate, in online communication, for lackingsocial skills.ADOLESCENTS TALKING WITH STRANGERS ON THE INTERNET 52714337c03.pgs 10/10/06 2:44 PM Page 527METHODSSample and procedureWe conducted a survey among 412 adolescents,12–18 years of age, who had ever communicatedwith someone online (M = 14.1, SD = 1.45). The ado-lescents were recruited from six elementary, middle,and high schools in the Netherlands. The schoolswere chosen in such a way that they representedadolescents in all levels of socioeconomic status.MeasuresOnline talk with strangers. This was operational-ized as the difference between the frequency withwhich adolescents talk with “people they know inperson” and the frequency with which adolescentstalk with “people they do not know.” The responsecategories for the two items ranged from 1 (never)to 3 (often). Subtracting the two items gives a scalefrom  2 (talk exclusively with people they know inperson) to +2 (talk exclusively with strangers), witha mid point of 0 (talk equally often with peopleknown in person and with strangers).Frequency of online communication. This wasmeasured on a scale ranging from 1 (less than oncea week) to 5 (several times a day). We collapsed re-sponse category 5 and response category 4 (everyday) to form a four-point metric scale.Intensity of online communication. This was mea-sured with the question “When you are chatting,how long does this chat session last on average?”The response categories ranged from 1 (about halfan hour) to 4 (about two hours or more).Introversion. We used the introversion subscaleof the Adolescent Temperament List.23This scaleconsists of 10 items, such as “I don’t talk easily aboutmy problems.” The response categories for each ofthe items ranged from 1 (completely disagree) to 5(completely agree). The 10 items formed a one-dimensional scale, with a Cronbach’s alpha of 0.77.Motives for online communication. We used variousitems from previous uses-and-gratifications stud-ies10,19and adjusted them to online communication.For each item, adolescents were asked how oftenthey chatted for that purpose. Response categoriesranged from 1 (never) to 3 (often). A factor analysiswith varimax rotation explained 61% of the varianceand yielded five interpretable factors with an eigen-value higher than 1.0. Based on these results, fivemotive scales were created: entertainment (six items,eigenvalue = 3.87, Cronbach’s Alpha = 0.73); main-taining relationships (three items, eigenvalue = 2.26,Cronbach’s Alpha = 0.72); social compensation (threeitems, eigenvalue = 1.78, Cronbach’s Alpha = 0.73);social inclusion (four items, eigenvalue = 1.27, Cron-bach’s Alpha = 0.73); meeting people (two items,eigenvalue = 1.20, Cronbach’s Alpha = 0.77). Theitems for the entertainment motive were: (1) “Tohave fun”; (2) “Because I enjoy it”; (3) “For pleasure”;(4) “In order not to get bored”; (5) “To have some-thing to do”; and (6) “To relax.” The motive to main-tain relationships was measured with (1) “To speakwith my friends from real life”; (2) “To keep contactwith my friends”; and (3) “To talk with friends thatlive far away”. The three items to operationalize thesocial compensation motive were: (1) “Because I cantalk more comfortably”; (2) “Because I dare to saymore”; and (3) “To feel less shy.” The social inclusionmotive was measured with (1) “To belong to agroup”; (2) “To be a member of something”; (3) “Be-cause everybody does it”; and (4) “To belong to mychat friends.” The two items tapping the motive tomeet people were: (1) “To get to know new people”and (2) “To make new friends.” The zero-order corre-lations between the five scales ranged from r = 0.07,n.s. (social inclusion and maintaining relationships)to r = 0.37, p < 0.001 (social compensation and main-taining relationships).Statistical analysisMultiple (OLS) regression analysis was performedto investigate which characteristics and motives in-fluence whether adolescents’ talk with strangers onthe internet.RESULTS AND DISCUSSIONFive percent of our 412 respondents talked exclu-sively with strangers. An additional six percent ofthe adolescents talked more often with strangersthan with people they knew in person. By contrast,43% of the adolescents talked exclusively to peoplethey knew in person and an additional 36% of theadolescents communicated predominantly withpeople they already knew from face-to-face conver-sations. The remaining 10% of the adolescents talkedas often to strangers as to people they already knew.Characteristics of adolescents talking with strangers on the internetIn contrast to our expectations, girls did not talksignificantly more often with strangers than boysdid (b = 0.16, n.s.; Table 1). However, age had the ex-528 PETER ET AL.14337c03.pgs 10/10/06 2:44 PM Page 528pected influence. Younger adolescents talked morefrequently than older adolescents with strangers on-line (b = 0.11, p < 0.01). This finding may reflect thedevelopmental changes in early adolescence, partic-ularly the identity crises typical of early adolescencethat make adolescents experiment with variousidentities. Anonymous, cue-reduced online commu-nication with strangers seems to be one possiblevenue for adolescents to try out these new identities.In contrast to our expectations, adolescentstalked less often with strangers as the frequency oftheir online communication increased (b = 0.17, p< 0.01). However, adolescents whose chat sessionswere more intensive talked more frequently withstrangers on the internet than adolescents whosechat sessions were less intensive (b = 0.12, p < 0.05).The latter finding may reflect the fact that conver-sations with strangers require time and elaborationto reduce the uncertainties accompanying a meet-ing with an unknown person.24Introversion had no influence on whether ado-lescents talked with strangers when communicat-ing online (b = 0.06, n.s.). One explanation of thelacking relationship may be that introversion is notappropriate as a predictor of risky internet behav-ior, such as talking with strangers. Future researchmay therefore want to focus more strongly on sen-sation seeking as a potential influence on whetheradolescents talk with strangers on the internet.Motives of adolescents talking to strangers on the internetTable 1 shows that the social inclusion motivehad no impact on whether adolescents talked withstrangers (b =  0.09, n.s.). However, the morestrongly adolescents were motivated to communi-cate online to meet people (b = 0.25, p < 0.001), tocompensate for their lacking social skills (b = 0.11, p< 0.01), and for entertainment (b = 0.05, p < 0.05),the more often they talked with strangers on the in-ternet. Conversely, if adolescents aimed at main-taining relationships when communicating online,they were less likely to talk with strangers (b =0.29, p < 0.001).The influence of the entertainment motive ononline communication with strangers dovetailswith recent research showing that late adoles-cents often use the internet and online communi-cation for fun.10,13,16,18The strong negative impactof the motive to maintain relationships on onlinecommunication with strangers fits into the largerpicture of adolescents’ use of online communi-cation as just another tool to “hang out” withpeers.13The positive influence of the social com-pensation motive empirically demonstrates whatprevious research has theoretically elaboratedupon.3As a result, the social compensation mo-tive may lend itself to more insightful explana-tions of sensitive internet behavior. The motivemay also help us to understand better why the in-ternet is popular among minorities or stigmatizedadolescents.Adolescents who want to meet new people onthe internet are likely to encounter strangersonline. Though at first glance commonsensical, theinfluence of the motive to meet new people is im-portant for two reasons. First, the motive to meetnew people is related to two crucial developmentaltasks in adolescence—the task to try out new thingsand the task to develop new relationships.12,21Sec-ond, for adolescents, the internet is primarily a so-cial medium,1,7,8,10,13 and it has never been so easy tofulfill the need to meet new people with so little ef-fort. We are currently witnessing an unprecedentedextension of adolescents’ social worlds, which in-teracts with adolescents’ motives to expand theirsocial network.ADOLESCENTS TALKING WITH STRANGERS ON THE INTERNET 529TABLE 1. PREDICTORS OF ONLINE TALKWITH STRANGERSOnline talk with strangers(n = 412)BSECharacteristicsFemale 0.16 0.09Age 0.11** 0.03Frequency online communication 0.17** 0.05Intensity online communication 0.12* 0.05Introversion 0.06 0.08MotivesSocial inclusion 0.09 0.05Maintain relationships 0.29*** 0.02Meet people 0.25*** 0.04Social compensation 0.11** 0.03Entertainment 0.05* 0.02Constant 0.46Explained variance (R square) 0.37*p < 0.05, **p < 0.01, ***p < 0.001 (two-tailed). Cellentries are unstandardized multiple regression co-efficients (B) and their standard errors (SE).14337c03.pgs 10/10/06 2:44 PM Page 529CONCLUSIONThe typical adolescent who talks with strangerson the internet is 12–14 years old and has less fre-quent, but intensive chat sessions. It is a mixture ofbeing bored (entertainment motive), curious (meetpeople motive), and inhibited in face-to-face con-versation (social compensation motive) that moti-vates this adolescent to seek the contact ofstrangers on the internet. 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